NOTE: This interview is the fourth of a special Thiel Fellows (Bright Minds Under 20) week at Daily BR!NK. Last March, twenty-four brilliant students were awarded $100,000 from the Thiel Foundation to spend the next two years in Silicon Valley pursuing their scientific, technical, and entrepreneurial projects. Since Daily BR!NK is all about up-and-comers and individuals revolutionizing their respective industries, we simply couldn’t resist featuring five trendsetters who will undoubtedly give you a glimpse at what tomorrow will look like.
INTERVIEW by MEGGIE O’DELL |PHOTOGRAPHY courtesy of GARY KUREK
It’s rare enough to find someone completely dedicated to improving the lives of others, but rarer still is the combination of that kind of altruism with a brilliant intellect and can-do entrepreneurial spirit. Meet Gary Kurek, engineer extraordinaire and founder of GET Mobility Solutions, a wunderkind making serious strides in helping the debilitated and disabled get back on their feet.
First of all, let’s start with your company, GET Mobility Solutions. What do you see as its goal, and what niche is it filling in the world of serving the disabled?
Well, my company primarily focuses on developing multi-functional products. I have a manual walker and a powered wheelchair, essentially, in one product, and I was able to create this device to weigh about 35 pounds, which is 10-15% the weight of current electric wheelchairs. However, it has a similar range per charge, so it can go about the same distance on a single battery charge that current electric wheelchairs can, but it’s also a lot smaller. It can fold up, and you can navigate the average home without needing costly renovations or anything like that. I’m working on stuff like advanced wheelchairs that can handle any sort of room environment (steps, staircases, anything like that) and hopefully building them for only about 1/3 the weight of current electric wheelchairs, as well.
Sounds great! I have to imagine that the Thiel Fellowship, the $100,000, was a big boost. What were you doing before you got the Fellowship, and how has it changed your plans?
Before the Thiel Fellowship, I was actually offered a full engineering scholarship to the University of Calgary. I felt that if I were to give up the work that I was doing on my company, there was no way that I could focus in university and I would have been kicking myself, essentially, for just throwing everything away. So I turned down that opportunity and just kept going with the company.
A few months later, I found out about the Thiel Fellowship and basically realized that if I were chosen, it was something that would just catalyze the process of what I was doing. I was already focusing on my own company, I wasn’t going to college, and I wanted to bring a product to market. I thought, you know, if I could go to Silicon Valley, if I could immerse myself in Peter Thiel’s network, (which down there is essentially Silicon Valley royalty) I thought… why not?
I’m sure that you get this a lot, and I hate to harp on it, but you’re only 19! At your age, most people can barely choose a major in university, and you started this amazing company. I don’t want to make you blush or anything, but when did you start inventing and what got you on that engineering track?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been passionate about mechanical engineering. When I was young, I was just one of those Lego blocks-type guys, and when I grew more into a toddler, I tried wiring up my Lego projects. I would also build functional model airplanes and stuff like that when I was about four. Once I reached middle school, I was building, like, scale model cities.
When I got into high school, that’s when I was in a position where I was kind of a caregiver for my grandparents. They were going through processes of progressive debilitation, and it sort of struck me how current mobility products weren’t addressing their needs, so it just kind of clicked in my head to build something better. And I wasn’t sure if it was going to go anywhere or if I’d even build a prototype or anything like that, but by the tenth grade, I had a trial prototype of my first medical product, and that’s still what I’m trying to market now.
Can you talk any more about how mobility issues affect the daily lives of the disabled and the elderly?
Well, I was very close with my grandparents my whole life. They were very strong, independent people. My grandfather actually dropped out [of school] by the time he was in eighth grade and created a successful oil company. And my grandmother had sort of a small business as well. After I saw them become debilitated by cancer… you know, it just kind of shocked me, so my instant response was, “how can I make their lives better?”
I was from a small town; it doesn’t take long for word to get out about what somebody’s doing. There were a few newspaper articles, things like that, and I would go and talk to other people in the community who were suffering from debilitating illnesses or mobility impairments. And the stories were all very different, but they had a sense of consistency, and you know, when you have huge numbers of people suffering from the same problems… it inspires me to continue my work.
Many of our readers will be familiar with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal law that requires businesses and other institutions to provide equal employment opportunities for the disabled and to ensure that all areas are accessible. Do you think disability advocacy is as important as the practical solutions you’re working on?
Among the community here, it is understood that the United States has among the strongest advocacy for the disabled in the world, in comparison to Western European countries, as well as Canada. The United States is doing a pretty good job with sloped curbs and the necessary ramps, things like that. I built a lot of my physical solutions because I think there isn’t enough advocacy and support toward disabled users. Simply because of that, I know it’s something I’m going to be getting into more; it definitely falls hand-in-hand with what I’m doing.
Speaking of Canada, I understand you in the Far North enjoy a game called “hockey.” It’s all very hazy in my mind, but I live in Chicago now, where people are crazy about a mysterious entity called the “Blackhawks.” Do you have a favorite team? Do you see wheelchair hockey being the next big thing?
I’m from the Edmonton area, so we’re the home of the Oilers. I’m not a huge hockey fan… for a Canadian that’s kind of rare. [laughs] Wheelchair hockey has its support up here; they play it at the Paralympics. Wheelchair sports… that’s not something I’ve looked into hugely yet. I would love to be a part of that, though. It’s all in the works!
What advice would you give to other teenagers with big goals or exciting projects, or to parents and teachers who want to stimulate ambition and creativity in youth?
Well, I think life is a big row of dominoes, and everyone has the first one kicked down by somebody. For me, it was a teacher in the eighth grade who simply said, “I think you should join a science fair, because I think you’re capable of producing something good.”
To inspire students, I think that teachers and parents have to encourage them. If they know that their child or their student has some sort of ability — and it doesn’t have to be something that stands out, like if some guy can’t juggle a hundred balls at the same time or whatever — encourage them and give them some time to try things out.
But the entrepreneur or inventor needs to be persistent as well, and they have to be able to focus on a single idea through thick and thin. And I feel that too many people today… the reason they’re not becoming that successful is that they keep changing their mind, giving up too soon. You can’t plant a seed and just walk away — you have to let the flower grow.
All right, now that we have your recipe for success, how can Daily BR!NK readers contribute to your continuing success?
We just like to have a lot of support, through our Facebook page and leaving comments on our website. We like people who are interested in marketing, as well as people who have ideas for new sorts of products or technologies that would help them. So if you have readers who are family or friends of disabled users or are disabled themselves, we would really like to reach out to that community and have them provide us their comments and feedback, and that will ultimately help us to help them.